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What should one expect from the King?

Mr. Adams wrote to me pressingly to join him in London immediately …I accordingly left Paris on the 1st. of March, and on my arrival in London we agreed on a very summary form of treaty … On my presentation as usual to the King and Queen at their levees [receptions], it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious than their notice of Mr. Adams & myself. I saw at once that the ulcerations in the narrow mind of that mulish being left nothing to be expected on the subject of my attendance;
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
It is hard, but often wise, for leaders to overlook past offenses.
In June 1785, John Adams was appointed Minister to England. A month later, Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin as Ambassador to France. Adams thought he saw a softening of England’s position toward the U.S. and asked Jefferson to join him in hopes of negotiating a new commercial treaty between the two nations.

Those hopes were dashed when the two ministers were presented to the King. He ignored them. Jefferson concluded he could expect nothing from the King, whom he called stubborn, narrow-minded, and damaged in his thinking.

Not sticking up for the King, you understand, but consider the situation: In the preceding nine years, America had savaged the King in the Declaration of Independence, beaten him on the battlefield, deprived him of wealthy colonies and humiliated him before the world. Now, two representatives of those same upstart colonies stood before him seeking a trade agreement. It would have taken a very wise and open-minded leader to accept them.

Jefferson and Adams were willing to leave the past behind and move forward in a manner that would benefit both nations. The King was not.

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20,000 letters but only one book …

… in the year 1781. I had received a letter from M. de Marbois, of the French legation in Philadelphia … addressing to me a number of queries relative to the state of Virginia. I had always made it a practice whenever an opportunity occurred of obtaining any information of our country, which might be of use to me in any station public or private, to commit it to writing. These memoranda were on loose papers, bundled up without order, and difficult of recurrence when I had occasion for a particular one. I thought this a good occasion to embody their substance, which I did in the order of Mr. Marbois’ queries, so as to answer his wish and to arrange them for my own use … On my arrival at Paris I found it could be done [printed in book form] for a fourth of what I had been asked here [in America]. I therefore corrected and enlarged them, and had 200. copies printed, under the title of Notes on Virginia.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders kill at least two birds with one stone.
Over the years, Jefferson collected a great quantity of material about his native Virginia, unorganized and difficult to access. This French inquiry gave him the opportunity to both gratify the request and bring order to his mess. The result was the only book Jefferson completed, Notes on Virginia. It came to be regarded as an authoritative scientific source, a third bird.

Primarily a compilation of natural history of Virginia, Jefferson answered 23 “Queries” on these topics: 1. Boundaries, 2. Rivers, 3. Sea Ports, 4. Mountains, 5. Cascades, 6. Productions, 7. Climate, 8. Population, 9. Military force, 10. Marine force, 11. Aborigines, 12. Counties and towns, 13. Constitution, 14. Laws, 15. Colleges, buildings and roads, 16. Proceedings as to Tories, 17. Religion, 18. Manners, 19. Manufactures, 20. Subjects of commerce, 21. Weights, Measures and Money, 22. Public revenue and expences, 23. Histories, memorials, and state papers

 

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Travel is not what it used to be!

On the 7th. of May Congress resolved that a Minister Plenipotentiary [Webster’s 7th New Collegiate: “a diplomatic agent invested with full power to transact any business”] should be appointed in addition to Mr. [John] Adams & Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin for negotiating treaties of commerce with foreign nations, and I was elected to that duty. I accordingly left Annapolis on the 11th … proceeded to Boston in quest of a passage. While passing thro’ the different states, I made a point of informing myself of the state of the commerce of each, went on to New Hampshire with the same view and returned to Boston. I sailed on the 5th. of July … after a pleasant voyage of 19. days from land to land, we arrived at Cowes on the 26th … On the 30th. we embarked for Havre, arrived there on the 31st. left it on the 3d. of August, and arrived at Paris on the 6th.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson was recalled to Congress in late 1782, an attempt by his friends to draw him out of his depression following the death of his wife in September. A year and a half later, he was appointed as a minister to France, to help negotiate commercial treaties. He used his travels from Annapolis to Boston to gain first hand information on the commerce of the states.

His journey to France required these times:
– 19 days from Boston to Cowes, on the Isle of Wright, off England’s south coast
– An overnight to sail 100 miles from Cowes to Havre, on France’s north coast
– Four days coach ride for the 100 miles from Havre to Paris

He spent five years in France, greatly broadening his leadership experience. He would return from that assignment to a much larger stage, Secretary of State for President Washington.

 

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What do you expect from a bunch of lawyers?

If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send 150. lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, & talk by the hour? That 150. lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected. But to return again to our subject.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
This is the 5th and final post taken from one long paragraph in Jefferson’s autobiography, where he interrupted his orderly progression to describe how the Confederation Congress members conducted themselves in debate.

Jefferson was a lawyer, but unlike most, he was never a debater, never openly contentious. How did he describe his fellow lawyers?
– They question everything.
– They yield nothing.
– They talk by the hour.
– It is unrealistic to think a group of lawyers could cooperate with one another enough to accomplish anything.

Jefferson’s last sentence acknowledged he had gotten off-task. Today, he might say, “But I digress …”

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Great leaders stick to the great issues.

I served with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia before the revolution, and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders deal in great things, not little ones.
Note the two characteristics Thomas Jefferson ascribed to both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin when they spoke to persuade others:
– They always spoke for less than 10 minutes.
– They devoted themselves only to the main point, the deciding point of an issue.

Jefferson seldom spoke in public debate, and he was impressed by those who could do so effectively. While legislators ranged from people like him, who spoke rarely, to ones like Patrick Henry, who spoke movingly and at length, Jefferson reserved his praise for those who spoke briefly and directly.

And what about the side issues, “the little ones,” Jefferson called them, the ones that distracted lesser men? Those would fall in line by themselves when great men focused on the great issues.

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Heard the one about two men in a lighthouse?

 
… speaking with Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin of this singular disposition of men to quarrel and divide into parties, he gave his sentiments, as usual, by way of apologue [a story with a moral]. He mentioned the Eddystone lighthouse in the British channel, as being built on a rock in the mid-channel, totally inaccessible in winter from the boisterous character of that sea, in that season; that, therefore, for the two keepers, employed to keep up the lights, all provisions for the winter were necessarily carried to them in autumn, as they could never be visited again till the return of the milder season; that, on the first practicable day in the spring a boat put off to them with fresh supplies. The boatmen met at the door one of the keepers and accosted him with a “How goes it, friend”? “Very well”. “How is your companion”? “I do not know”. “Don’t know? Is he not here”? “I can’t tell”. “Have not you seen him to-day”? “No”. “When did you see him”? “Not since last fall”. “You have killed him”? “Not I, indeed”. They were about to lay hold of him, as having certainly murdered his companion: but he desired them to go upstairs and examine for themselves. They went up, and there found the other keeper. They had quarreled, it seems, soon after being left there, had divided into two parties, assigned the cares below to one, and those above to the other, and had never spoken to, or seen one another since.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders recognize factions are just a way of life.
Since I’m excerpting Jefferson’s autobiography, this is the next noteworthy passage, even though it was a post more than three years ago.
The Continental Congress was having difficulty governing. Men divided into factions and refused to cooperate. As minister to France, Jefferson witnessed the same problem there. He used Franklin’s story to illustrate “this singular disposition of men to quarrel and divide into parties.”
If we bemoan how our political leaders now seem to divide into separate camps and refuse to talk with one another, this story reminds us it was that way in the late 1700s, too. The light keepers in Franklin’s story had an advantage, though. They didn’t have to cooperate to get the job done.
Benjamin Franklin often told a story to make a point, the meaning of “apologue,” the word Jefferson used in the first sentence above.

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Congress: Accomplish a week’s work in one day!

If every sound argument or objection was used by some one or other of the numerous debaters, it was enough: if not, I thought it sufficient to suggest the omission, without going into a repetition of what had been already said by others. That this was a waste and abuse of the time and patience of the house which could not be justified. And I believe that if the members of deliberative bodies were to observe this course generally, they would do in a day what takes them a week, and it is really more questionable, than may at first be thought, whether Bonaparte’s dumb legislature which said nothing and did much, may not be preferable to one which talks much and does nothing.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders prefer deeds to words.
Jefferson’s ideas for an effective legislative body:
1. If another argued a point, he didn’t need to repeat the same argument.
2. If something was omitted in an argument, he would point it out and then stop, without repeating what others had said. To do otherwise was abusive and an unjustifiable waste of time.
Adopting such self-limiting principles would enable “deliberative bodies” to accomplish in a day what currently took a week.

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If they would just SHUT UP!

Our body was little numerous, but very contentious. Day after day was wasted on the most unimportant questions. My colleague Mercer was one of those afflicted with the morbid rage of debate, of an ardent mind, prompt imagination, and copious flow of words, he heard with impatience any logic which was not his own. Sitting near me on some occasion of a trifling but wordy debate, he asked how I could sit in silence hearing so much false reasoning which a word should refute? I observed to him that to refute indeed was easy, but to silence impossible. That in measures brought forward by myself, I took the laboring oar, as was incumbent on me; but that in general I was willing to listen.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders hold their tongues.
In 1783, the Confederation Congress (successor to the Continental Congress) argued issues at great length. Jefferson questioned the need or wisdom of such extended debate. John Francis Mercer, an impetuous 24 year old Virginia delegate, may have been all too typical of the verbal jousters:
– loved debate for its own sake (“afflicted with the morbid rage of debate”)
– intellectually passionate (“ardent mind”)
– quick with new thoughts (“prompt imagination”)
– excessively talkative (“copious flow of words”)
– dismissive (impatient with “any logic … not his own”)
Jefferson said such people could be refuted but would not be silenced. As for himself, he participated in debate only on issues he introduced. Otherwise, he kept his mouth shut and listened.

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How simple can you make it?

I proposed therefore, instead of this, to adopt the Dollar as our Unit of account and payment, and that it’s divisions and sub-divisions should be in the decimal ratio … This was adopted the ensuing year and is the system which now prevails … The division into dimes, cents & mills is now so well understood, that it would be easy of introduction into the kindred branches of weights & measures. I use, when I travel, an Odometer of Clarke’s invention which divides the mile into cents, and I find every one comprehend a distance readily when stated to them in miles & cents; so they would in feet and cents, pounds & cents, &c.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders simplify, so everyone can understand.
In the early 1780s, there was no common system of money. The British pound was prominent, and there was trade in foreign coins. Several states had their own money, often in paper form, with little or no backing in gold or silver.

A plan was presented to the Continental Congress for a unified system, based on grains of silver, with 1440 units per dollar. Jefferson thought the system sound and ingenious but impractical, “too minute for ordinary use, too laborious for computation either by the head or in figures … entirely unmanageable for the common purposes of society.”

He proposed instead a decimal system, with a dollar based on 100 units, easily divisible “into dimes, cents and mills” (1,000th of a dollar). He cited the example of an odometer on his carriage, which divided a mile “into cents,” or 100ths of a mile. He found everyone could understand a measurement expressed so simply.

Nearly decade later, he proposed a national decimal system to President Washington for both money and distance. His always-opponent Alexander Hamilton countered with English measurements for both. To satisfy his feuding lieutenants, the President adopted Jefferson’s decimal system for money and Hamilton’s feet-and-inches system for distance.

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If it has been done well already, why do it over?

On the 1st of June 1779. I was appointed Governor of the Commonwealth [of Virginia] … Being now, as it were, identified with the Commonwealth itself, to write my own history during the two years of my administration, would be to write the public history of that portion of the revolution within this state. This has been done by others, and particularly by Mr. Girardin … has given as faithful an account as I could myself. For this portion therefore of my own life, I refer altogether to his history.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders leave well enough alone.
Jefferson’s two one-year terms as governor of Virginia (June 1, 1779 to June 1, 1781) were fully occupied with the state’s participation in the war for independence. Any history written of that time would have covered little else. A “Mr. Girardin,” who had access to all of Jefferson’s wartime papers, had faithfully reported those two years. Jefferson saw no need to duplicate a work someone else had already done well.

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